How to Get a Chapter Back on Track

By: Lisa Junker, CAE

If a local chapter is falling apart at the seams, when is it the job of national to step in? This month's Associations Now case study looks at how one chapter-relations manager takes it on. (Titled "Chapter Resuscitation" in the print edition.)

Editor's note: This case study includes guest commentary from an associtaion professional. Scroll your mouse over the speech bubbles that appear in the text to see the comments; scrolling over the bubble at the end of this sentence dispalys the name of this month's guest commenter.  This month's commentary provided by Susan Post, CAE.

"Finally!" Jennifer said aloud when she saw the email in her box from the North Carolina chapter. The chapter was weeks past its deadline to provide her with its list of new officers, and she was going to have to move quickly to help the chapter make arrangements to attend the chapter leaders retreat in June.

But when she clicked the message open, she didn't see the list of officers she was expecting.

A half hour later, Jennifer knocked on her boss Russell's open door.

"Hey, Russ?" she called.

He looked up, a little bleary eyed from the report he was reading. "Hey, Jenn. What's up? You've got your serious face on."

"I just heard from the North Carolina chapter about their officers for next year." Jennifer walked in and sat down. "And here's the thing: They don't have any."

Russell raised a brow. "What's going on down there?"

"They say the chapter is closing up shop. I heard from Jared Littner, the secretary from last year. He says that there's nobody else who's willing to serve on the board."

"Wow." Russell leaned back in his chair. "Huh. North Carolina isn't one of the most active chapters, but they haven't been the least active, either."

Jennifer nodded. "I was surprised, too.  Too often, chapter relations professionals (CRPs) must rely on information provided in standard reports designed to keep them aware of the chapters' activities at the local level. Unfortunately, even the best reporting tools fail to capture concerns regarding lack of quality succession planning, overburdened or ineffective volunteers, or the absence of strong chapter leadership. As a result, CRPs often end up being surprised when a seemingly engaged, active chapter suddenly emerges at risk.—Susan Post, CAE But there must have been warning signs that I missed. I'm really sorry, Russell."

"You have 60-some chapters to manage, Jennifer," Russell said. "Don't beat yourself up."  Russell is correct! It is virtually impossible for busy CRPs with sole accountability for a large number of affiliated groups to be aware of the varying dynamics and leadership challenges faced by each and every chapter. —SP

"I'm not," said Jennifer. "But I'd like to see if I can work this out. Maybe the issue is something that can be fixed. We have 300 members in the state. I hate to leave them with no local programming whatsoever."

"We could always plan some programming from here," Russell pointed out. "A few times a year, maybe."

"That's an option," Jennifer agreed. "But I'd still like to go down for a day or two and talk to some people. I can swing it under my travel budget, if you're OK with that."  In my experience, Jennifer's instinct to "swoop in and save the day" is common among CRPs when they become aware of a floundering chapter. Although Russell suggests possible solutions that could be initiated from the national office, Jennifer's determination that a face-to-face meeting with chapter leaders is the best course of action. —SP

"Of course. Just keep me posted."

Inside Information

Jennifer picked up her coffee at the counter and walked back to the table she was sharing with Jared, the former secretary of the North Carolina chapter. He was already sipping a latte.

"So, it sounds like last year was tough for you guys," she said.

"Yeah, it was," Jared agreed. "It's been draining."  This highlights the need for CRPs to recognize when it is in the best interests of all parties to let go of a chapter. This can be a difficult decision, but a necessary one, especially when all possible avenues have been exhausted but ineffective chapter leadership and management issues persist. —SP

"I have to admit, I was surprised to hear things had gotten so bad," Jennifer said. "I've been in touch with Teri all year, and she never told me about any problems."

Jared glanced down at his coffee. "Well, that's Teri."

"What was the board like with her as president?" Jennifer asked.

Jared hesitated. "Teri's a really good person. I really admire her as a professional, you know?" Jennifer nodded and waited for Jared to continue. Finally, he said, "She didn't have a ton of time to communicate with the rest of us. She used to put so much time into the chapter, but then when she and her husband adopted Nikki two years ago, she didn't have the availability anymore.  Let's face it: No volunteer leader wants the organization she is leading to fall down on her watch. As a result, leaders are often reluctant to admit to fellow volunteers that they are unable to fulfill their commitments or ask for help … . So, like Teri, they continue on as best they can, stoically refusing to accept offers of help, and eventually drop out of sight entirely.—SP We probably ended up cancelling half of our board meetings or calls last year because something came up and Teri needed to reschedule."

"Could the other board members have taken some of the weight off of her?" Jennifer asked.

"We would have, and she always appreciated it when we offered, but getting to a point where you could actually help her was tough. It was like she found it easier to do things herself, rather than take the time to explain them to someone else, you know?  CRPs can set the stage for effectively managing these situations by encouraging key volunteer leaders to make them aware of the challenges they are facing early on. By reinforcing that it's OK to ask for help … situations can be handled up front before they develop into much larger, complicated issues. —SP And other times we were trying to put things together at the very last minute, so it was lots of running around."

"What about Lena?" Jennifer said, referring to the chapter treasurer.

"It's hard to say. Mostly, she did her job as treasurer and stayed out of the rest of it. She didn't talk a lot during board meetings. I think Teri expected Lena to transition into the president's role without a problem, but then when Lena said she was changing jobs and leaving the association, Teri didn't know what to do, and she kind of freaked out."  Effective succession planning is critical to the success and sustainability of any organization. However, as we all know, the best-laid succession plans can often self-destruct when your identified successors find new employment, move out of state, or simply burn out.—SP

"Were you at all interested in moving into the presidency?" Jennifer asked.

Jared nodded. "Sure," he said. "But I couldn't do it alone. And I couldn't find anybody else who wanted to join the board."  I encourage volunteer leaders to identify multiple candidates for each role as part of their succession-planning process, especially for key leadership positions such as chapter president. While this practice may involve more work on the front end, it can be a lifesaver when your president-elect suddenly moves to London for a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity, or your current president (who's eligible for two more terms) announces she has to step down to care for an elderly parent.—SP

Further Investigation

"How was the trip?" asked Russell.

"Informative," said Jennifer. "I can see what happened, now, and I can see how I missed it. But fixing things is going to be tough."

"So, what's the scoop?"

Jennifer shared a brief summary of her conversation with Jared. "It seems to me that Teri got more and more overwhelmed but didn't want to say anything. I don't know why.  Had Teri been honest with Jennifer about what was really going on, Jennifer would have been able to help guide Teri to a better solution in the long run.—SP Maybe she didn't want to sound like a complainer. But when she reached a point where she just couldn't take it anymore, she just dropped off the grid altogether. She still isn't returning my calls or emails, even."

"It's a tough situation for a volunteer," Russell said.

"Oh, absolutely," said Jennifer. "The problem is, I was taking her reports at face value and missing a lot going on under the surface. The attendance at their events was dropping off. They dropped their 5K race a few years ago because of lack of participation. Then they cancelled some educational meetings; Teri told me their members were more interested in the virtual education we offer through national, but I think it was because attendance was getting so low.  Jennifer learned a valuable lesson here. Although there were warning signs over the years that indicated the chapter might be in trouble, Teri was providing reasonable explanations for each drop in attendance or lack of participation.—SP I talked to some of their chapter members who joined in the last few years and a couple that stopped paying dues in the past few years. They all say that the events just got more and more thrown together, and a few got cancelled at the last minute. The new people said it all seemed really disorganized, but at the same time, it seemed like so much work that they didn't want to jump in and volunteer themselves. "

"Now that you've had all these conversations, what do you think our next steps are?" asked Russell.

"Now, there's the question," said Jennifer. She took a deep breath and then opened the folder she had on the table in front of her. "The way I see it, we have three options. The first is to leave things as they are. Chapters are local, the local folks in North Carolina aren't interested in supporting a chapter, so it goes."

"But you don't like that option," said Russell, tapping his pen against his notepad.

"No, I don't," she admitted. "I think there's more we can do. And that's 300 members we'd be essentially leaving in the lurch."

"An argument could be made that we're not really leaving them in the lurch, if they weren't attending events anyway."

Jennifer shook her head. "We don't know if it was lack of interest in events in general or in poorly organized events. Or even if it was the type of events the chapter board was putting together. We have some other chapters trying new formats that have gone really well, but North Carolina hasn't tried any of them, or anything new, really. They've stuck to very traditional meetings in the last few years, when they've had them."  Too often, volunteer leaders are so tied to "how we've always done it in the past" that they unwittingly place their organizations at risk. Many of the tried-and-true association models of the past are quickly becoming obsolete, and we must be willing to explore new models and embrace technology to ensure future success.—SP

Russell smiled. "OK, then. What are the other options?"

"Option two is essentially a chapter on training wheels for a year or two," said Jennifer. "Jared is willing to become president of the chapter board, but without any other volunteers who are really bought into the chapter right now, I think we'd just end up back where we've started. So I'd like to work with him almost like North Carolina was an expansion chapter, like we're starting from scratch. I can focus on the logistical legwork, and he'll focus on building community, getting new volunteers involved, that kind of thing. We'll develop an 18-month plan and benchmarks for attendance and attendee evaluations. If it doesn't work out, we'll have given it our best shot."

"Then what's option number three?"

"Option three is to focus more on a virtual chapter."  In my experience, I see many well-established, long-term chapters that hold the same monthly programs, refuse to take advantage of social media, and rotate the same group of volunteers through their leadership ranks, only to wonder why membership is declining and they're having challenges with volunteer recruitment.—SP Jennifer twitched another sheet of notes out of her folder. "Jared wasn't as interested in this idea, but there were several other chapter members who I think could be great leaders in the virtual space—one is really active on Twitter, another is really active in the national LinkedIn group, and they both contribute a lot to the national website. I think we could use this as an opportunity to roll out a local online community, with them working as community catalysts, in a way, and me working to support and encourage them. I'd like to bring them to the chapter leaders retreat in June, too, to help get them excited and started on the right foot. And, if we could get it to work, it's something we could start to offer as an option to other chapters. It's a great opportunity to experiment."

"Intriguing." Russell pondered for a moment. "I think both of your ideas have potential. And you're definitely selling me on enthusiasm alone, if we can make the budget work." He tapped his pen against his notepad again. "Of course, we'll have to run this by the senior team. When we go to them, I think we need to have this narrowed down to one proposal, as solid as we can make it. If you had to choose, which idea do you think we have the best chance of pulling off?"

Jennifer looked down at her notes, and then up at Russell. "You know what I'd really love to propose?"


"Both." Before Russell could speak, she rushed ahead. "I know it'll be a lot of work, but I think both options have real value, and they might attract different kinds of members.  Successful chapters are discovering ways to effectively embrace social media and other technologies, actively engage young professionals, and begin the critical transitions needed to ensure future viability.—SP Other members might even be attracted to both. I'm willing to put in the time, over the next 18 months, if you're willing to work with me and Jared and the other volunteers to build a solid plan." She leaned forward in her chair. "What do you think?"

Lisa Junker, CAE, IOM, is director, publishing and custom media, for Stratton Publishing & Marketing, Alexandria, Virginia. She is former editor-in-chief of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Susan Post, CAE, PHR, SPHR, is director, eastern region, for the Society of Human Resource Management in Alexandria, Virginia. Email: [email protected]

This article is part of a series of fictional case studies developed for Associations Now. All people, places, and chapters contained herein are hypothetical and based entirely on the imagination of the author. No real events are intentionally reflected.

Advice for Community Starters

What advice would you offer Jennifer and the North Carolina volunteers as they try to rebuild a live chapter community and launch a virtual one? Comment below with your advice and ideas.

Lisa Junker, CAE